Friday, October 7, 2011

Do Young Fans Ignore Old Horror Films?

Horror cinema has been struck with a rash of remakes these past 15 or so years. It's one of the more creatively destructive trends in horror today.

What was the point of that Omen remake? The first Omen was already excellent, in a decade known for excellent Satanic horror (e.g., The Exorcist, Race with the Devil, The Devil's Rain, The Brotherhood of Satan, and my personal favorite, The Sentinel). The new Omen mimicked the old, scene for scene, minus Jerry Goldsmith's creepily demonic soundtrack. Hollywood took the old version, removed some great elements, and add nothing worthwhile.

So, what was the point?

Not that Hollywood should be encouraged to change old horror films. Sometimes the remake is an improvement. Toolbox Murders is superior (more imaginative, creepy, and atmospheric) to the original, sordid The Toolbox Murders. But more often, remakes are changed for the worse. The new Haunting lost all the ghostly atmosphere and subtle characterizations of the original Haunting, replacing them with embarrassingly silly and inappropriate CGI effects.

I suppose Hollywood thinks that "modern" horror requires CGI effects.

But the Big Question: Why? Why so many horror film remakes?

Certainly, Hollywood must think there's money in remakes. Maybe the studios regard the old films as pre-sold commodities. The title is already known. Fan base already in place.

But why does Hollywood imagine that fans of the old version want to see it remade? Or that fans prefer remakes over new films?

John Carpenter has a theory about horror film remakes. In the Special Features documentary on The Fog remake's DVD (another remake that's inferior to the original Fog), Carpenter says:


"I've heard several reasons why horror films are being remade. One, I think, probably is the simplest explanation, is a lot of kids have heard of these movies, but they've never really seen them. Maybe they've heard their older brothers or their parents talk about them. So it's in their consciousness, but they've never paid attention.

"But in general there's a cultural mindset right now that says anything over fifteen years old is kind of dead and old-fashioned. And so in order to make it viable again, we need to take it out, and kind of give it a fresh coat of paint, and try to revise the corpse."



In other words, Hollywood thinks that young horror fans have heard of these old horror films, and are interested in seeing them. But they refuse to do so, because these films are over 15 years old.

Huh?

Does anyone say, "Wow, that film sounds great. I'd like to see it. But it's old, and so I can't."

Not only illogical, but contrary to the evidence.

Horror is the most enduring of genres. The 1930s Dracula and Frankenstein films remain widely known and admired today. Even lesser known horror films from that period (e.g., The Black Cat, The Raven, Maniac, The Devil Bat) win new fans every year. Apart from a few famous exceptions (e.g., Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach) the same cannot be said for most dramas or westerns from the 1930s.

Horror is an evergreen genre. Hardcore horror fans love horror films of every decade. There's no need to remake the older films (even if Hollywood does, on rare occasion, do it well, as in 1978's Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

So why does Hollywood produce so many remakes? Three theories come to mind...


1. Famous older films are seen as a pre-sold commodity, hence, a “sure thing.”

2. Hollywood has run out of new ideas.

3. Young horror fans refuse to watch any horror films made before the 1990s.



Of those theories, I doubt there's any truth to #3. Young casual filmgoers may shun older horror films -- but not young hardcore horror fans.

And hardcore horror fans are the target market for horror remakes. Why? Because only they would know or care about the horror films that have been remade over the past 15 years.

Don't Look in the Basement, Thirteen Ghosts, The House on Haunted Hill -- all remade. Not the sort of films known to casual filmgoers, but films that continue to attract hardcore horror fans of every age. No remakes required.

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For more commentary about horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Dark Floors: Poorly Motivated Characters Weaken the Horror

Method acting teachers instruct their students to always ask: What's my character's motivation? The actor should know who is this character? What is his history? What does he want? What just happened that got him to this place or situation?

Then the kicker: What is his next, most logical action based on his past history, wants and desires, and most recent experiences?

Writers should likewise keep those issues in mind when creating and propelling characters from scene to scene. There should be a reason -- motivation -- for a character to do something.

Poorly motivated characters are a horror film cliché. The most cited example is stupid teenagers who wander aimlessly about dark forests and empty houses, long after all their friends have mysteriously disappeared. Why would anyone do that?

Poorly motivated characters arise when writers focus solely on the events in a story, such that they treat the characters as mere props.

The writer wants Joe to kill Mary in the locker room. So the writer makes Mary go into the locker room, even if she has no logical reason to go there -- even if she has strong reasons to avoid the locker room.

Because characters engage an audience, strong characters heighten the horror. Conversely, poorly motivated characters weaken the horror.

Yes, it may be fun to watch stupid characters die. But longtime horror fans become jaded to shocks and violence, so the fun wears down. For a horror film to unnerve viewers, it helps if we care about the characters. And that's harder to do if they're one-dimensional clichés who behave unrealistically.

Comedies are an exception, a genre for which audiences make allowances for unrealistic behavior and outlandish coincidences, provided the film is funny.

But Dark Floors is a humorless horror film, credited to seven writers, none of whom bothered to focus on the characters' motivations.

In Dark Floors, Ben is a loving father, who has taken his sick daughter, Sarah, to a hospital for tests.

Poor writers will often rely on cheap devices to seek sympathy for their characters -- look, a sick child! Poor thing! And her dad's all weepy because he loves her! Heartstrings!

But a mere setup is not enough to create an engaging character. If Ben and Sarah are poorly motivated, the emotional impact of Ben's loving, teary-eyed gaze will diminish. As is the case in Dark Floors.

Ben and Sarah enter a hospital elevator with a disparate bunch: a tough Security Guard, a Homeless Man, Emily (a nurse), and a Selfish Asshole.

His name is Jon, but his character is no more than the Selfish Asshole. The typical cowardly, arrogant, obnoxious type that crops up in many horror films. You know he'll die before the film's end.



The elevator doors open onto an empty hospital floor. The characters exit, then wander about aimlessly (did all of them even intend to get off on this floor?). A ghost chases and scares them. They huddle in a room, wondering what just happened?

Contemptuous of the others, Jon decides to leave on his own. Why? He suggests that maybe it's all an illusion, perhaps from a gas leak. After he leaves, a demon attacks him in the elevator.

Ben and the Security Guard rescue Jon. Yet afterward, Jon shows no gratitude or humility. His character is poorly motivated. A normal person (even a selfish asshole), would at least give the pretense of gratitude.

Soon after his rescue, Jon watches the Security Guard try to break through a basement wall, so they can escape the empty, haunted hospital. Jon mocks the Security Guard's vain efforts, sneering, "C'mon, Rambo. Do something useful. Find us a real way out."

Why would Jon say that? Merely because the writer wanted Jon to be obnoxious -- though that's not how Jon should behave, considering his recent near death, and that the Security Guard helped save Jon's life.

The Security Guard is irritated by Jon. (His irritation is well motivated.) But then he snarls, "You want it out?" -- essentially threatening to beat up Jon.

More poor motivation. The Security Guard has now gone overboard.

Yet it's typical of poorly motivated characters of any genre. Writers will inject pointless bickering, arguments, and fights into their scripts, in a lame attempt to "heighten the tension." Pointless, because there is no good reason for the characters to argue -- no proper motivation -- other than that the writer wanted the characters to argue, and so he made them argue.

How often have you seen films in which a disparate group of people trapped in a "tense situation" get on each others' nerves for no good reason?

Talented writers can create tense drama without mindlessly argumentative characters. Consider Mulder and Scully in The X-Files. Their cool, procedural, methodical investigations, and the secrets they uncovered, were tense and dramatic enough without injecting pointless arguments. Even the villains (e.g., Cancer Man) were usually deathly cool.

Engaging characters in interesting stories needn't argue to create drama.

This also meant that when arguments did erupt on The X-Files, their emotional impact was greater. An event's rarity increases its impact.

Here's Dark Floors worst (of many) examples of poorly motivated characters. The Security Guard and Homeless Man are dead. Jon suggests to Ben that the ghosts (or demons?) want Sarah. If they sacrifice Sarah to the monsters, they'll be safe.

Poor motivation: Even if Jon were right, no rational person would advise a loving father to sacrifice his sick daughter to monsters. Yet Jon actually expects Ben to agree!

Ben is outraged. (Good motivation.) But then Ben realizes that Sarah needs her medicine. So Ben decides that he and Emily will search the hospital for Sarah's medicine -- and Ben decides to leave Sarah alone with Jon!

Huh?

And listen to Ben's contradictory dialogue. Before he leaves, Ben says to Jon, "Watch her." Then he adds, "You even lay a finger on her, you won't live to regret it."

Huh?

Ben leaves Sarah in the care of a man who wants to kill her? Ben even -- contradictorily -- asks Jon to protect Sarah, while feeling the need to threaten Jon into not harming Sarah?

It's not like Ben doesn't have options. He can take Sarah with him (he's pushed her wheelchair throughout the film). Or he can insist that Jon go with him, while he leaves Emily with Sarah. Or he can ask Emily to find the medicine on her own, or with Jon, while Ben stays behind with his daughter.

But Dark Floors's seven writers failed to ask What's Ben's motivation?

What does Ben want? (To find medicine for Sarah.) What recently happened to Ben? (Jon threatened to sacrifice Sarah to the monsters.) What is Ben's most logical next move? (To find medicine for Sarah in a way that doesn't leave her at the mercy of Jon.)

Instead, the writers focused solely on the events -- the cool, scary horror scenes they wanted to show. They wanted Jon alone with Sarah, so Jon could give Sarah to the monsters. So the writers simply made Ben and Emily leave Sarah alone with Jon, contrary to those characters' logical motivations -- treating the characters as props rather than as thinking, feeling persons.

In summary:

1. Strong characters engage an audience, and heighten the horror. This is because shocks and gore are more unnerving when they happen to characters we care about.

2. One dimensional setups (the loving dad) are not enough to create a strong character. The character must be well motivated throughout the story.

3. Poor motivation arises because writers focus solely on a script's events (what happens), rather then on pondering every character's motivation for every action they take (or avoid taking), throughout the entire script.

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For more about how horror films effectively unnerve -- or fail to unnerve -- audiences, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Killer Scream Queens -- A Horror Icon That's a Pinup Girl Rather Than a Threat

Genres are often confused with their icons. A genre is a set of story conventions. Icons are dramatic elements -- character archetypes, objects, settings, historical periods, etc. -- that recur throughout a particular genre, so that they become associated with that genre.

The vampire is a horror icon, though other genres also use vampires. Love at First Bite and The Munsters have vampires, but are comedies. The spaceship is a science fiction icon -- but Alien is a horror film.

Icons are a form of shorthand symbolism. Being symbols, it's easy for an icon to disengage from their "parental genre" and take on lives of their own. To convey meanings, and have a purpose, apart from their parental genre's goals.

The horror genre's goal is to inspire fear, usually through an Unnatural Threat (less often via a Naturalistic Psycho Gorefest). However, rather than frighten, some horror icons disengage from the horror genre and instead comfort, or sexually excite, or offer a sense of empowerment to the viewer.

Consider the blood-soaked Killer Scream Queen (as opposed to Scream Queens that are victims). Although this horror icon has perhaps been a threat in some films, today she is primarily a pinup girl. Audiences are not meant to fear her, but to identify/sympathize with her, and enjoy her massacres of (often male) victims.

Examples of Killer Scream Queen pinup girls include Chainsaw Chelly (right) from Dove Matrix:


Also consider this work of art, The Girl, The Chainsaw, from Million Gossip:


The Killer Scream Queen pinup girl has even become a whimsical Halloween costume. Ladies can purchase this Chainsaw Babe outfit from Sexy Costumes:


The Killer Scream Queen is a horror icon that's found a life outside of the genre. No longer threatening or scary, she is used primarily to...

1. Offer "strong" role models to women.

Some critics have accused 1980s slasher films of misogyny. Not entirely fair -- in the 1980s, slashers and victims came in both sexes. But female victims were more often, and more fully, exposed in all their nudity, so the accusation has a kernel of truth.

But the Killer Scream Queen is unabashedly reverse-sexist. She conveys an attitude of: "Now it's our turn to have fun with a chainsaw!"

Chainsaws (as opposed to knives or machetes -- which are smaller and lacking in power) are the Killer Scream Queen's weapon of choice. A Freudian (of which, I am not one) might suggest that these women are arming and empowering themselves with an especially big phallus.

There's an implication that, because these killers are women, it's liberated and progressive to enjoy their violence. One is not supposed to feel threatened by them, so much as to side with them. That's also true to some extent of ugly male killers (who have their fans), but even more so of attractive female killers.

At the 2010 Viscera Film Festival, co-founder Heidi Martinuzzi said that "Feminism is simply equality." Not all feminists agree with that definition -- or even agree about what "equality" might look like. Rosanne Barr has expressed disdain for Angelina Jolie's depiction of "strong women," because all Jolie has proven (according to Barr) is that women can kill in large numbers too. Barr describes Jolie's films "violent" and "psychopathic."

Are female killing machines (such as Lara Croft -- and the Killer Scream Queen) "strong and equal" to men -- or have they merely surrendered their femininity for masculinity? By emulating male killers, have they proven the equality of women, or the superiority of patriarchal values?

2. Serve as the object of men's sexual fantasies.

Men are expected to regard the Killer Scream Queen as sexy, and a conscious effort is made to depict her as sexy. The Killer Scream Queen is invariably young and shapely. She might be buxom, but never overweight.

Although she is a horror icon, her rigid conformity to dominant beauty norms weakens the Killer Scream Queen's claim of also being a feminist icon.

Why are men attracted to murderous women? Perhaps for the same reason that women are attracted to murderous men. They imagine the killer will make an exception in their case, recognizing the force of "true love." The Killer Scream Queen will massacre the jocks who've bullied the nerd -- and then she will fall in love with the nerd.

Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers offers an example of the Killer Scream Queen as sex object (in a film, as opposed to her many pinup images):



3. A blood-drenched, chainsaw-wielding nymph has Shock Value.

The Killer Scream Queen offers an "in your face" assault upon "respectable society" that is always appealing to teenagers and marginalized subcultures. People who feel weak, ignored, or devalued sometimes feel empowered by identifying with horror icons. These icons are not perceived as threats, but as friends, compatriots, or avengers of bullies. Like some other horror icons, the Killer Scream Queen is popular because parents disapprove.

Consider this Twisted Sister video. Dee Snider, in typically freakish Heavy Metal icon makeup, appears on a poster. The father's disapproval upon seeing this poster elicits a smile from the son. (The father snarls, "Wipe that smile off your face.") Presumably, the son wouldn't enjoy Twisted Sister's music as much if the father were a fan.



Horror icons are losing their shock value. This is because...

A. Horror is big business. One can't offend Corporate America by buying its product.

B. Halloween has become an adult holiday. It used to be only for children, but Boomers largely refused to give it up upon attaining adulthood. Today parents are more likely, than in the 1950s, to share their children's interest in horror.

C. Anything will lose its shock value over time.

In Horror Film Aesthetics, I enumerate Four Appeals of horror: 1. Catharsis, 2. Metaphysical Transcendence, 3. Sympathy for the Other, and 4. Ideological Palette

The Killer Scream Queen's appeal is primarily a case of Sympathy for the Other. Her fans see her as an attractive symbol of empowerment. They don't so much fear her, as wish they were her, or were dating her. She is a horror icon with little horror bite -- a figure of comical fun and sexual excitement.

Horror requires threatening threats, and vulnerable victims, otherwise there's little to fear. The more we have Sympathy for the Other -- the more we empathize with the killer as opposed to the victim -- the weaker the horror.

To lesser degrees, the Killer Scream Queen sometimes functions in an Ideological Palette (as a symbol for some political message or other), or Catharsis (when she is threatening sympathetic characters -- which is not too often).

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For more about the appeals of horror see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Burrowers -- Western and Horror Morph Rather Than Mix

The “horror western” is a subgenre of the horror genre, not the Western. The horror western uses Western icons (e.g., Grim Prairie Tales), but its story conventions and atmosphere are horror. It is marketed toward -- and attracts -- horror fans, not Western fans.

Horror westerns normally mix these two genres from the start. We see the Western icons (the period locale, cowboys, Indians. etc.), but the story is soon, and clearly, horror.

The Burrowers is set in the Dakota Territories, 1879. But rather than blend the Western and horror genres, The Burrowers's strength is that it begins largely as an authentic Western. Only after the audience is emotionally adjusted to a Western does The Burrowers become a horror film.

The Burrowers opens on a romantic conversation, set on an idyllic Western ranch, a golden sunset in the background. Coffey with Maryanne, as they discuss how he will ask her father for her hand in marriage.

Minutes later, the first violent outbreak is typical of Westerns -- we hear gunfire outside the cabin. The family escapes to a cellar. They hear strange noises -- our first hint of an unnatural threat, as required by horror -- but we don't see any unnatural threats.

The family is killed. Maryanne is apparently kidnapped by Indians. (Audiences know it wasn't Indians -- but are lulled into believing that Maryanne may still be alive.)

For the next 44-45 minutes, The Burrowers is mostly a straight Western. Romantic photography, charging horses, beautiful prairie vistas -- supported by appropriate Western period music.


Psychologically, emotionally, dramatically, the characters are typically Western. The strong and silent Clay (very much a The Searchers, John Wayne type). The gentlemanly gunslinger Mr. Parcher. Coffey, the romantic Irish immigrant, riding to rescue Maryanne. Callaghan, the “noble Negro” (what Spike Lee calls the "magical Negro") -- compassionate, honorable, enduring racism without ever losing his dignity.


There is also an arrogant U.S. Cavalry officer, callous and cruel to both blacks and Indians. When he threatens to whip Coffey for “feeding my Indian,” the strong and silent Clay stares him down, ready for a gunfight, though outnumbered by the officers' troops.

Naturally, the officer backs down from the heroic Clay.

Throughout these first 44-45 minutes, there are intimations of horror -- the strange scars on a dead girl's neck; strange holes in the ground; something in the bushes that kills four troops. But overwhelmingly, The Burrowers's mise-en-scène, music, story, characters, and themes (loyalty toward loved ones and comrades; dignity in the face of adversity) are those of a Western.

The film emotionally conditions the audience for Western. Even if they know intellectually that they're watching a horror film, they feel like they're watching a Western. This conditions their expectations for a Western outcome. They anticipate (even if only subconsciously) that Coffey will rescue Maryanne. Most of the heroes will survive -- and if any should die, they will die noble, honorable, courageous deaths.

Yet as the film progresses, The Burrowers morphs from a Western into a horror film.

Midway into the film, Clay is killed. It's not an honorable death, but shocking and brutal. He dies not like John Wayne, giving a noble speech while heroically fading away, but is unceremoniously butchered like one of Leatherface's victims.

Clay's death is emotionally jarring. I regard this as the event that pushes the audience's mindset out of the Western genre, and into horror.

Things worsen. The monsters (vampiric “burrowers” living underground) reveal themselves. The unnatural threat becomes clear and visible.

The burrowers' bite poisons Parcher. As he fades over the course of the next day and night, he grows paranoid and cowardly. He shoots at his former comrades, lest they desert him.

In the end, he dies a coward's death. (His emotionally selfish state of mind is not unlike the cowardly jock in Jeepers Creepers 2 who wanted to abandon the weak ones, only to be killed himself.)

Callaghan likewise dies a senseless, ignoble death, the result of cowardice and incompetence. A victim of friendly fire, and an incompetent army surgeon (who perhaps callously amputated Callahan's leg, not much caring about a mere Negro's health). Callaghan, the “noble Negro,” dies like a piece of meat -- discarded like an anonymous victim in a slasher film.

Some friendly Indians die senseless deaths too, mistaken by the army as hostiles and executed. Much like Ben was mistaken for a zombie in Night of the Living Dead, and thus killed by a sheriff's posse. In horror films, innocents often die at the hands of incompetent authority figures.

Coffey fails to rescue Maryanne, or anyone else. He fails to bring proof of what he's learned about the burrowers. The army, by killing the friendly Indians, kills any hope of learning how to stop the burrowers. As in many horror films, the protagonists stymie, but do not destroy, the threat. Myers will return to kill again.





By starting as a straight Western (rather than a “horror western”), and only morphing into horror after the audience has been emotionally conditioned for a Western, The Burrowers solves a common horror film problem:

Horror requires an unnatural threat -- a sudden realization that (to quote from Frank Lupo's Werewolf pilot script) "The world is not as our minds believe."

The problem is that audiences get jaded after seeing so many horror films with the same unnatural threat -- be it a vampires, zombies, or uberpsychos. Familiarity breeds a sense of normalcy. Seeing them so often, we come to feel that they're commonplace, hence, natural.

As a result, horror filmmakers are challenged to find new ways to "creep out" audiences with a novel unnatural threat, some new threat that will overturn viewers' sense of reality.

Because most horror filmmakers can't rise to the challenge, they instead rely on gore and shocks (e.g., Devil's Grove).

The Burrowers solves this problem by starting as an authentic Western. Only after the audience is emotionally invested in a Western, with preconceived expectations of the characters' heroic deeds and successful fates, does the film emotionally jar them by segueing into a horror film -- when the characters are suddenly revealed to be cowardly and/or vulnerable.

Their deeds and deaths are typical for a horror film, but shocking to an audience that had forgotten they were watching a horror film.

Imagine High Noon if, during the last third, Gary Cooper suddenly turns cowardly, Grace Kelly is senselessly butchered like a piece of meat, and half the town massacres the other half in mindless mayhem.

The Burrowers demonstrates the emotional punch that comes of establishing one genre in the audience's mind, then defying their emotional expectations by morphing midway into another genre. A non-horror sensibility is established, into which any unnatural threat feels that much more unnatural.

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For more about horror's overlap with other genres see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Circle of Fear's “Legion of Demons” - Staging of Actors Instills Fear and Paranoia

The 1970s was a golden age of televised supernatural horror. Back then, broadcast TV forbid graphic violence, even more so than today. This forced horror TV shows to create fear and suspense solely by non-gory means, such as story, music, and acting.

TV's Ghost Story (retitled Circle of Fear in mid-season) ran from 1972-73, and was canceled after only one season. Last seen on TV during a late-night rerun on CBS in the 1980s, little remembered, and unreleased on DVD [until recently], it's a gem of 1970s supernatural horror. An anthology series, with a different story and cast every week.

Its "Legion of Demons" episode demonstrates how the staging of actors can instill fear and paranoia in viewers.

Beth is an office typist. One day she's transferred to another division. Her co-workers are all friendly. Too friendly. Not scary, but slightly creepy.

After typing for a few hours, Beth opens her desk drawer -- and sees a disembodied hand! She faints. Her co-workers crowd behind her. They see nothing in the desk drawer. Yet we immediately realize there's something ominous about these co-workers.

The main reason for our suspicion is the staging. Crowded into a single frame, these co-workers form a tight and ominous group.

Grouped people can be menacing. Seeing a group standing or staring in opposition to the protagonist probably taps into a primal human instinct. The individual vs. The Tribe.

People gathered into a group are often cause for concern in a crime drama, as when a gang crowds about the protagonist. But horror often stages otherwise friendly people into a group (such as the co-workers in “Legion of Demons”) to instill fear and paranoia. Viewers feel paranoid, sensing that something is “not right” about those grouped people, though viewers can't logically justify their paranoia.

Horror films about alien invasions, or small town conspiracies, often stage the evil characters into a tight group that stands silently facing, or staring at, the protagonists. It makes viewers (who identify with the protagonist) feel like an Outsider facing a hostile, primitive Tribe.

This frame of Beth's co-workers grouped together, observing her after she has fainted, instills fear and paranoia because of the staging, but this fear is aesthetically supported by...

* The co-workers not panicking, or even reacting, to Beth's fainting. They just stare.

* Ominous music (composed by the excellent Billy Goldenberg and Robert Prince).

* A slightly wide-angle lens. This lens not only has the aesthetic effect of suggesting that these co-workers are cause for fear, but it has the pragmatic effect of allowing the director to squeeze all five people into one frame.

Later, when Beth awakes, she sees her co-workers standing over her. Unlike previously, it's a POV shot, yet once again this scene uses the same staging, calm demeanors, slight wide-angle lens, and ominous music.

The friendly co-workers explain to Beth that she fainted, and offer soothing words of comfort.

Of course, the staging, calm demeanors, lens, and music all imply that our paranoia, and fear for Beth, are justified.

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For more about pragmatic aesthetics -- and the use of actors, lens, and music in horror films -- see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Drag Me to Hell -- Subversive Threat Can Heighten Fear, But Is Overlooked

A reviewer on Amazon claims that Lost Souls is subversive to Christianity. I disagree. In Lost Souls's retelling of Revelation, God is good, Satan is evil. Good defeats evil. Lost Souls introduces its own theological details, but Christian fundamentals are affirmed.

By contrast, Drag Me to Hell introduces a potentially powerful -- and frightening -- concept: Mere mortals have the power to damn people to Hell.

In Drag Me to Hell, Christine (actress Alison Lohman), is a bank loan officer who refuses a mortgage extension to an old gypsy woman. Outraged, the gypsy curses Christine so that she will die in three days, after which she will burn in Hell for eternity.

Normally, curses in horror films inflict earthly torment or death on a victim. Once you die, the curse can't follow you. Only God determines who goes to Hell.

You can damn your soul to Hell. You might commit a grave sin, or sell your soul to Satan. But it was your evil act -- your willful disobedience to God's law -- that sent you to Hell. Mortals cannot send innocents to Hell. Not even Satan can do that.

Not so in Drag Me to Hell.



Christine is a good person. She doesn't do anything Hell-worthy. She even tries to convince her boss to grant a mortgage extension to the gypsy. True, the boss leaves the final decision to Christine, albeit indicating that he prefers the extension be denied. But denying a loan extension -- to a bad risk who's already had two extensions -- is not Hell-worthy.

Drag Me to Hell's core concept -- that evil mortals can damn people to Hell -- heightens the threat, and thus the potential fear. For those who accept Christianity, and can suspend disbelief for the duration of this film, this is creepy stuff. Twilight Zone/X-Files type creepy. As in "the world is not as our minds believe."

Horror films have introduced new rules into theological tales (e.g., Lost Souls, The Sentinel, Child of Darkness, Child of Light). That's not a problem. For a Christian horror fan, it can be quite entertaining. The problem with Drag Me to Hell is that it introduces a new rule, one with great potential to heighten the fear -- then ignores it.

Filmmakers Sam and Ivan Raimi seem unaware of their own film's fear potential. Their threat -- a mortal empowered to damn innocents to Hell -- seems inadvertent and unnoticed. Drag Me to Hell makes no special mention of this startling departure from core Christian theology.

No character in the film remarks, "Wait a minute -- can a gypsy do that?" Christine does not consult a priest or minister -- only a (pagan?) psychic. She seeks supernatural help, without struggling with this new and mind-boggling (to a Christian) concept.

A Google search shows that Sam Raimi is Jewish, which may explain his failure to realize the potential power of his idea for Christian horror fans.

Drag Me to Hell focuses on traditional horror film elements -- spooky atmosphere and sudden shocks -- rather than the intellectual and metaphysical implication of its threat.

It's still an enjoyable film. The atmosphere is spooky, the shocks are there. Slick production values and an overall fine cast. It even co-stars Justin Long of the excellent Jeepers Creepers. (Always nice to see Long in a horror film.) But Drag Me to Hell might have been so much more had it spent some time exploring the notion that a mortal has the power to damn innocents to Hell.

Offhand, I recall only one other horror film which features a mortal with the power to damn people to Hell. It's a short film called Mr. Buttons, which was submitted to my Tabloid Witch Awards in 2007.

A Wiccan priestess empowers this clown doll, Mr. Buttons, to grant wishes. A woman wishes her brother to Hell for eternity when he dies, and the doll complies.

Again, Mr. Buttons didn't make much use of this premise. Only at film's end do we learn the woman's wish, or that the doll has the power to grant it. As in Drag Me to Hell, this concept is passed over so quickly, I'm not sure filmmaker David Quitmeyer understood his idea's potency.

Apart from its strong ending, Mr. Buttons has rough production values and is not noteworthy. A decent effort by a beginner filmmaker, but no more.

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For more about the nature of threats in horror films, and the nature of the pleasures that come from viewing them, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Saturn Award Ignores Grassroots Horror for Studio Product

Every year, the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films presents its annual Saturn Awards. The Academy claims that its goal is to recognize genre excellence.

The problem is, it doesn't even try to do so.

The Academy's genre definitions are so elastic, all manner of non-horror (and non-science fiction/non-fantasy) films qualify for Academy screenings and Saturn Awards.

Who or what is to blame? Among the prime culprits are studio publicists.

I wrote about this problem back in 1997. My article eventually saw print in 2001.

It's now available for free online at Communist Vampires.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

“So Bad It's Good” vs. “Suspension of Disbelief”

At last weekend's World Horror Convention, I served on a panel entitled: Why Do Horror Films Suck?” I challenged the panel's premise, explaining that I can enjoy even technically inept horror films.

Another panelist, author Scott Browne, agreed, saying that some films were so bad, he found them entertaining.

Yet that's wasn't quite what I meant. I gave it some thought after the panel, and had an epiphany.

I enjoy “bad” horror films, but not because they're “so bad they're good.” I enjoy them for the same reason that I enjoy “good” horror films -- because my “suspension of disbelief” filters out elements that hinder my enjoyment.

Film theorists have long said that, to enjoy a film, the viewer must “suspend disbelief.” We know those are actors on the screen, not real people, but we shove that thought from our minds. We know horses can't talk, Superman can't fly, and ghosts don't exist, but we shove that thought from our minds.

It's the same with technically inept films. Watching a technically great ghost film like The Haunting requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Watching an inept ghost film -- with wooden acting, cheap sets, poor atmosphere, and a microphone that occasionally drops into the screen -- also requires suspension of disbelief, but more of it.

I tell myself: “Okay, I'll ignore that ghosts don't exist -- and I'll pretend those are real people on screen despite their bad acting, and I'll pretend I didn't see that boom mic's shadow against the wall.”

To suspend disbelief over a film's ineptitude yields a different quality of pleasure than enjoying a film because “It's so bad it's good.” In the former case, the viewer may yet enjoy some fear or suspense, because one still believes the story on screen. In the latter case, the viewer has given up all attempts at believing in the story (suspension of disbelief is broken), and just laughs at the bad actors stumbling about the cheap sets.

I have a high tolerance for inept horror films. I can suspend my disbelief even for films like Blood Feast and Horror of Party Beach, and enjoy their stories. (Although, I've seen so many horror films, it's hard for me to feel fear from any of them, however hard I try to suspend disbelief.) Other people have a lower tolerance, and can only enjoy these films on a “so bad it's good” level.

There is also a gradation. One may suspend disbelief to a certain (greater or lesser) degree for some films, while enjoying part of these films for being “so bad it's good.” (I can enjoy The Great Alligator on both levels.) Naturally, the more inept the film is, the more this ineptitude wears away at viewers' suspension of disbelief.

I've long held that a film should be judged both Objectively and Subjectively.

Some horror films are Objectively and Subjectively great. They meet the high standards of defensible, objective criteria -- and I greatly enjoy them. For example, The Haunting and Lost Souls.

Other films are only Subjectively great. I greatly enjoy them, yet I see their technical faults. For example, Stage Fright or Crucible of Terror.

Even so, despite technical shortcomings, such films can still have some Objective merit due to their admirable use of pragmatic aesthetics (i.e., using those technical shortcomings in ways that support the characters, story, or themes).

In summary, by suspending disbelief, one can enjoy a technically inept horror film despite its ineptitude, rather than because of it.

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For more about interpreting horror films, and the nature of the pleasures that come from viewing horror, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Kay Lenz's Performance in The Initiation of Sarah

The Initiation of Sarah (1978) is my favorite horror TV movie from the 1970s -- a decade famous as a Golden Age of horror TV movies. It's a Carrie ripoff, but as occasionally happens, it's better than the original.

As with Carrie, The Initiation of Sarah is about a nerdy girl with psychic powers (Sarah, portrayed by actress Kay Lenz) who is bullied by female classmates. This time it's college, rather than high school, but it's essentially the same story.

Because The Initiation of Sarah is a TV movie (and shot in the more innocent 1970s), it has less gore than Carrie. This means that Sarah must rely on other strengths. Without taking anything away from Carrie's Sissy Spacek, Sarah's greatest asset, among many, is Kay Lenz's performance as the nerdy Sarah.

Lenz's physical appearance, body language, mannerisms, and expressions consistently capture the nuanced timidity of a girl nerd. Consider Sarah maneuvering silently amid the ANS partygoers. (See below clip.) In her dowdy cardigan sweater, the 5'1" Lenz holds herself together, trying to avoid touching anyone as she squeezes past the exuberant taller girls chattering over her. The insecure Sarah strains to be inconspicuous, painfully self-conscious despite the beautiful ANS (Alpha Nu Sigma) girls' obliviousness to her.



It's a short scene, but The Initiation of Sarah is full of such moments when Lenz shines as Sarah. Unfortunately, the above clip seems out of sync, but focus on the visuals and you'll see what I mean.

The one flaw in Lenz's portrayal is when the ANS girls fling mud and vegetables at Sarah, who stands screaming rather than retreat into the house. Most likely, this was Robert Day's direction. A small mistake, in an overall fine job as director. (No, I don't buy that Sarah was "too shocked" to move; I rarely buy that horror's legions of screaming women are too shocked to move whenever a monster lumbers toward them.)

Carrie was remade starring the admirable Angela Bettis, one of the few current actresses who could equal, if not excel, Spacek's performance. I think of Bettis as a female Anthony Perkins; her character in May has a Norman Bates quality. Creepy, yet vulnerable and sympathetic.

It's possible that The Initiation of Sarah was likewise remade, though its DVD description indicates that the producers merely reused the title for an entirely different story. I've not seen this "remake," because most horror remakes of the past 15 years (unlike the ripoffs) have been dreadful, so I can't say for sure.

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For more about the staging and performances of actors in horror, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Realistic Acting Enhances Supernatural Horror

Like any art form, acting encompasses many styles. Certain styles are more aesthetically supportive of a film's story, characters, and themes than are other styles.

Acting can be theatrical and melodramatic (Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, House of Yes), slightly theatrical and "stylized" (Bram Stoker's Dracula), hyper-stylized to the point of parody (Streets of Fire), hammy (Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, Blood Feast), deadpan (The Unbelievable Truth), scenery-chewing (William Shatner or Grayson Hall), or have the adults behave like children (Freaky Farley).

(No, I don't know every acting style out there; I'm sure many have yet to be discovered or invented.)

Filmmaker Alex Bram (Body of Work) believes that realistic acting is especially beneficial for supernatural horror. Bram says: "I am devoted to realistic acting, although I work in a surreal genre. So often, the unrealistic and cartoon style acting seems to creep into these kinds of movies."

Here's a trailer for Bram's supernatural horror short film, Body of Work:



Realistic performances help ground the Unnatural in reality, making the unreal seem real to audiences.

Critics have noted that one of Kolchak: The Night Stalker's strengths was that the show's supernatural monsters were offset by the cynical journalist, Carl Kolchak. If such a well-grounded character believed in the show's supernatural story elements, the viewer would more easily suspend disbelief.

The X-Files similarly set the Unnatural in a realistic milieu, with FBI Special Agent Dana Scully serving as the show's cynic. (Of course, since Kolchak had no partner, he was both Scully and Mulder, his character arc beginning the series as Scully, then growing over time into the more open-minded Mulder).

Realistic acting isn't always the best choice for a horror film, but it's a style that filmmakers might consider if the film's Unnatural Threat is especially incredible.

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For more about acting styles and Unnatural Threats, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Editing: An Unnerving Shot Sequence in Galaxy of Terror

This shot sequence from Galaxy of Terror twice misleads the audience by raising -- and then denying -- their expectations, unnerving them for the final shock.

The setting is inside a spaceship on a hostile planet. Ranger (Robert Englund) has just seen Captain Trantor (Grace Zabriskie) on a video monitor, apparently injured near an air lock. He rushes out of the room, toward the air lock.

We begin with this objective shot of Ranger running through a corridor:


We cut to a subjective shot of his POV rushing through the corridor:


Cut back to an objective shot of Ranger:


Cut back to a subjective shot of his POV, rushing toward this door:


But then the door opens -- and out comes Ranger!

We were fooled! Shot 4, unlike Shot 2, was not subjective! Not Ranger's POV.

By misleading viewers, director Bruce D. Clark has unnerved the audience, fraying its nerves for potential future shocks.


Cut to what looks like Ranger's moving POV:


And once again, the subsequent shots alternate between what appear to be subjective and objective shots.




Ranger approaches yet another door.

This appears to be his POV moving toward the door:



Will we be fooled yet again? When the door opens, will Ranger enter or exit from the doorway?



Neither!

The door opens -- and out comes the burnt body of Captain Trantor!


The previous misdirection in Shots 3/4 lowered our expectations for anything gruesome exiting from the second doorway, making Trantor's appearance all the more shocking.

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For more about how horror uses editing, and the difference between shocks vs. frights, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Also read my post on how editing misleads audiences in Vacancy.

Friday, February 25, 2011

What Is An Unnatural Threat -- And Why Does It Matter?

Horror requires an Unnatural Threat. Slasher films without an Uberpsycho (an indestructible, superhuman slasher, such as are Myers or Jason) lie closer to suspense/crime thrillers than to horror. Weak, pathetic slashers (e.g., Maniac, Don't Go in the House) are Natural Threats, hence, only tenuously horror.

Why does it matter? What differentiates a Natural Threat from an Unnatural Threat?

The quality of fear.

Compare these scenarios:

1. You're at home, alone with a loved one. Just the two of you. Someone you've known and loved and trusted for many years. Say, a husband. You're talking intimately. Suddenly, he pulls a gun on you, snarling, saying he's hated and lied to you all these years, and now he will kill you.

Horror? No, the threat is natural. Happens every day. It's shocking and frightening, but the tale could as easily make for a crime thriller, a suspense film, or a soap opera.

2. You're at home, alone with a loved one. Just the two of you. Someone you've known and loved and trusted for many years. Say, a wife. You're talking intimately. Your wife enters the bathroom, leaving the door ajar. You see her reflected in the mirror, though she doesn't realize that you see her. As she calls out to you, cheerful and loving, she reaches under her chin and peels off her face, revealing a hideous alien. A bizarre hole in her "face" continues shouting to you, in her lovely voice, cheerful and friendly. Her eye-thing glances into the mirror and sees you watching her...

That's horror. That's an Unnatural Threat. The quality of fear differs. The Ring and The X-Files inspire a qualitatively different fear from the fear evoked by Saving Private Ryan, Death Wish, or Underworld.

An Unnatural Threat evokes both fear and a sense of wonder. An Unnatural Threat is awesome and mesmerizing. This is why an Unnatural Threat packs a stronger emotional punch than does a Natural Threat.

Some films do qualify as horror, despite their Natural Threats. I'm talking about the Naturalistic Psycho Gorefest, whose killers are colorful and bizarre (not weak or pathetic), as is found in Texas Chainsaw Massacre or House of a 1000 Corpses).

But because the quality of fear differs from unnatural psychos, I'm inclined to think that the Naturalistic Psycho Gorefest is not a horror subgenre, but an entirely different horror genre.

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For more about Unnatural Threats, Uberpsychos, Apparent Uberpsychos, and Naturalistic Psycho Gorefests, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Masks Empower Horror Psychos and Slashers

The classic horror psycho is what I call an uberpsycho. A dark, enigmatic, force of nature. Indestructible and relentless, he feels no pain, no empathy, no sympathy. He doesn't run, but plods forward, calmly confident in his ability to catch his victims, and fearing no pursuer.

Halloween's (1978) Michael Myers was the first uberpsycho -- and the first horror psycho. Until Myers, psychos primarily inhabited mysteries, suspense films, crime thrillers, etc.

Psycho (1960) is an excellent and frightening film, but Norman Bates is a suspense psycho. He is mortal and vulnerable. He is a natural threat, and thus elicits from audiences a different quality of fear than a unnatural threat.

An uberpsycho is an unnatural threat. Myers and Jason are indestructible and superhuman, for no good reason. Our sense of their indestructibility is supported by their enigmatic nature. Try to explain their strength, and they become less mysterious. Hence, they become less believable -- and less powerful, less threatening.

To create this enigmatic aura around a horror psycho, it's helpful to keep them hidden either offscreen or behind a mask. A psycho risks being disempowered (i.e., feel less threatening) when we see his face.

Final Exam and He Knows You're Alone both feature silent, nearly mute psychos, killing for no apparent reason. Yes, they're skillful with a knife. Final Exam's killer even has the required superhuman strength.

Yet because we see their faces early on, they're brought down to our human level. They are less impressive. Not enigmatic, dark forces of nature, but merely crazy humans on a killing spree. These films edge away from horror, toward the suspense/crime thriller genres.

Alfred Hitchcock famously said that a strong villain makes for a strong film. Alas, the psychos in Final Exam and He Knows You're Alone are nondescript rather than enigmatic.

Even worse is when a film focuses on a mundane psycho (rather than on the victims), showing us his pathetic life in detail (e.g., Maniac, Don't Go in the House). In such films, the psycho appears weak, vulnerable, and natural. We feel disgust and pity, rather than awe and fear.

To shoot an effective horror slasher film (rather then a suspense or crime thriller), it helps to hide your psycho offscreen or behind a mask.

Apart from uberpsychos (an unnatural threat), there is another sort of horror psycho found in naturalistic psycho gorefests. These psychos are mortal (i.e., naturalistic), but they're also colorfully crazy and fearless (e.g., Texas Chainsaw Massacre, House of a 1000 Corpses), rather than pathetic or nondescript.

But they're another issue, not to be found on the "slasher spectrum," which runs from the enigmatic (Halloween) to the nondescript (Final Exam) to the pathetic (Don't Go in the House).

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For more about Unnatural Threats, Uberpsychos, Apparent Uberpsychos, and Naturalistic Psycho Gorefests, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

It's Film, Cinema, or Motion Picture -- But Never Say "Movie"

Last December, while reviewing Horror Film Aesthetics, a critic for Zombos' Closet wrote: "Ever notice how calling a movie a film makes it sound much more important and academic? I suppose it helps when discussing horror movies--I mean films--especially their visual language."

I assume "Zombos" was half-joking -- yet his observation is closer to the truth than he probably realizes.

In my first class at NYU's film school, a professor told us that the correct way to refer to a film was "film, cinema, or motion picture." All three were acceptable. But we were admonished to never say "movie." Only the ignorant called it "a movie."

The students eagerly lapped it up. Jargon helps separate "professionals" from "amateurs," implying expertise in a difficult subject. Film students need this psychological boost. Many "lay people" suspect that studying film is not as intellectually taxing as, say, calculus or quantum physics. (Okay, it isn't).

Jargon not only suggests to outsiders that the speaker is entitled to respect; jargon also helps convince the speaker that his years of study aren't wasted.

Apart from jargon, film students sometimes imply their expertise by expressing certain preferences. Black & white is preferable to color. Grainy images are preferred to high-resolution. Film is better than video. Foreign or obscure films are superior to American or popular films. (Which is not to say that these same film students wouldn't like to work for Hollywood.)

Some students waver on some points, but those were the generally approved preferences at NYU film school when I attended. It made for some comical conversations. One student would say that he preferred black & white to color, whereupon another insisted, "Oh, I love black & white!" and then another would jump in to insist on her even greater love for black & white.

Then someone would add, "I especially love grainy black & white," and someone would jump in to say, "Oh, I love grain!" And so on.

I view film snobbery with 90% disdain, 10% admiration. A pinch of film snobbery is fun, and can spice up a film review or book.

How much snobbery is too much? A review should be intelligent, but accessible. A person of average intelligence, without any training, should be able to easily understand what you're saying, and the points you're making.

There no excuse for inscrutable prose. Alas, many academic film books use jargon that's so obscure, you can't find the words in a dictionary. No, I'm not exagerating. My film texts at NYU were full of words I didn't know, and couldn't find in a dictionary.

Film is not a difficult subject. It only requires average intelligence to master cinematic concepts -- provided the professor isn't writing in intentionally obscure, academic code.

If a film book is incomprehensible, then the author is either a poor writer, or is trying to hide a paucity of ideas under a mountain of verbiage.


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For what I hope are intelligent, yet accessible, insights on horror films (with just a pinch of snobbery), see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Image in this post is that of Michael Myers as Dieter Dieter.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Mad Scientists: "Gender" Determines Their Mise-en-Scène

If one knows a mad scientist's sex, one can pretty much predict his or her fashion sense, hair style, and demeanor. This horror icon's mise-en-scène is as rigidly sex-specific as "blue is for boys" and "pink is for girls."

Yes, there are exceptions. But for the most part, gentleman mad scientists favor rumpled clothing, unkempt hair and megalomaniacal outbursts. They can never contain their enthusiasms when their big experiments come to fruition.

Consider Drs. Frankenstein, Pretorius (Bride of Frankenstein, 1935), and Rotwang (Metropolis, German 1927).

Even the often uptight Herbert West laughs like an hysterical lunatic on occasion.

By contrast, lady doctors are always uptight. Always neat. They rarely display any emotion about their Great Work, or anything else for that matter. Their lips are as tight as their hair buns.

Consider Dark Shadows's Dr. Julia Hoffman; Dr. Parkinson (Fiona Lewis) in Strange Behavior (Australian 1981); and Dr. Carter (Kate Trotter) in the "And Now the News" episode of TV's Friday the 13th: The Series.

Yes, there are exceptions. The normally cool Julia Hoffman loses it on occasion, and when she does so, actress Grayson Hall equals Willian Shatner in her scenery chewing.

Why this male/female divide in mad scientist style and behavior?

Is our society frightened by undisciplined, wild men, unable to control themselves, or contain their lusts, passions, greed, and ambitions? Whereas crazy, irrational behavior is "normal" coming from "the weaker sex," whose destructive potential isn't all that great anyway.

By contrast, a cold, emotionless woman is "unnatural." Heartless and cruel. There's no telling what bizarre crimes against nature she may commit. But a cold, emotionless man is trustworthy. Self-control makes him safe and reliable. Silent and strong.

I've never been much for "gender studies" (I think "sex" is more accurate than "gender" when applied to people), and I don't know if these are the reasons for how male vs. female mad scientists are portrayed.

Furthermore, while male mad scientists tend to be unkempt and ranting, and female mad scientists are cold-blooded and uptight, this male/female divide does not appear so much among other villain icons.

For instance, Bond villains (mostly men) tend to be cold, emotionless, and hyper-rational, whereas suspense thrillers have their share of hyper-hysterical female villains (Fatal Attraction).

It's mostly among mad scientists where evil men and women have switched their traditional emotional roles.

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For more about the use of mise-en-scène in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.